Monday, November 25, 2013

An Ethic for the Artisan


Pygmalion & Galatea, Gérôme
In the 1st century C.E. Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio penned an axiom, a tripartite statement of values that would guide architectural ethics for many centuries: Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas roughly translated as Durability, Usefulness, Beauty. And rightfully so! The “architectus” was the “chief builder”; his sacred obligation was to create durable buildings practical as well as pleasing to his patron.

Alongside the architect, creating anything in this world by the hand of man that could be called great or beautiful, was another figure, “Homo Artifex”, the man who makes art, the artisan. Perhaps never consciously acknowledged but certainly always felt, he was guided by a different ethic. I propose a parallel axiom for the artisan: Venustas, Sensatas, Humanitas.


Beauty is the shared ethic between the architect and artisan. Yet, whereas the architect conceives at the scale of the body, the artisan creates at the scale of the hand and the eye. It is a question of degree. Certainly the architect works for the delight of his patron; nevertheless, the artisan is consumed by it.

For example, perchance the architect decides that to bestow beauty upon a given space some ornamentation should be provided. Finding an appropriate precedent he directs the artisan that such and such column capital should be referred to, making said adjustments for the scale of the space, conveying a lightness or heaviness with shade and shadow, etc. Perhaps the architect, having a particularly keen interest, will even pass by on occasion as the work progresses.

Courtesy of Palladio Mouldings
The intensity of the experience of the artisan is of another measure entirely. How thick should the leaves be? How should they furl? Should the lobes be slightly more rounded? The oculi deeper? The ribs more slender? A thousand decisions are considered, hundreds discarded, far past pursuing the satisfaction of the architect or the whim of the patron, rather agonizing over a mere glimpse, if for but a moment of the ephemeral goddess, herself.


Feeling, emotion, life.

I was recently doing a consultation at historic Drayton Hall. The façade of the building is fine, well proportioned and generally unremarkable. One could argue that we have finer examples in Charleston and the façade pales in comparison to a true Palladian example such as the Villa Capra.

Nevertheless, you can not help but be delighted as you enter the piano nobile to behold a lovely enriched plaster ceiling and panelized walls. Is it of the finest craftsmanship? Perhaps not but it is full of feeling! Step
Drayton Hall
into an adjacent room and you are enthralled by a hand modeled plastered ceiling. No sublimity of line or crisp shadow. Yet what it lacks in precision it more than makes up for in life. I would venture to say that these two rooms, not the history, not the proportion, not the fact that Drayton Hall is a faithful example of colonial Georgian Palladian style, rather it is the artisanal beauty and expressed emotion of these two rooms that is the overwhelming reason why Drayton Hall was preserved to begin with and now is the most beloved building in Charleston and one of the most beloved in the United States.

Why do so many ordinary people “feel” such a connection to the spaces when walking through these rooms at Drayton Hall? Because the artisans even after so many years are able to communicate to us, as if offering a gift though time. The very casual, free nature of their workmanship allows us to empathize, to share. We can see the hand of the artisan in the work and we could imagine for an instant that the artisan's hand was our hand. Subsequently the emotional connection draws us in deeper and deeper as we begin to sense how much patience and intense concentration was demanded to realize the subtle shadows of the ornaments and the flowing spirals of the foliated scrolls. Whereas the architect designed a durable building to cater to our needs, the artisan continued to embellish it with the ambrosia that feeds our souls.


Courtesy of Hunt Studios
Don't imagine we can create anything truly beautiful. The most graceful leaf ever sculpted in marble by Callimachus himself would pale into insignificance when scrutinized against the leaf of a dandelion, thistle, acanthus or any other weed we might trample underfoot. What we can do is appreciate the delicacy of a flower, the grace of a lion or the beauty of the human form and record in wood, stone or plaster a few small aspects of their majesty. It is this conveyed act of appreciation, a decidedly human quality that gives nobility to the art, the artisan and our shared cultural patrimony.

For this reason machined art is dead. More than lifeless it is pointless. What beauty we can extract from art is the interpretation of life by the human mind passed through the human hand. There is no conversation with a computer or a machine. I would give this plea to the architect and the patron: grant the artisan freedom to make his art. And to the artisan this caution: let no man take this freedom from you; men can have their soul stripped and be turned into machines as well.

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Contributed by Patrick Webb

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